From the research we conducted in partnership with the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) between June 2020 and October 2021 (gathering feedback on visit experiences from around 100,000 visitors across more than 50 attractions), we know how magnificently visitor attractions stepped up to the plate and delivered Covid-safe experiences, reassuring visitors as they took their first steps back into the attraction-visiting environment.

But not only do we know how well attractions dealt with the immediate crisis situation, this period also shone a light on some specifics of the visit experience which might help plan for a future beyond the pandemic.  Here are perhaps the five most important of these insights:

1.       Our eyes have been opened to the benefits of pre-booking

During 2021 we found that, given the choice, around two-thirds of visitors would have preferred pre-booking their visit anyway.  Importantly, this only declined very slightly as visit confidence grew later in 2021, suggesting that this preference could well outlast the pandemic.

Those groups for whom certainty of visit date/time is often more important – families, non-members and those visiting paid admission sites – were even more likely to prefer pre-booking.  Preference for pre-booking was also even higher among younger age groups (under 55s) – this cohort becoming increasingly conditioned to instant pre-booking across their lives, whether ordering a meal through Deliveroo or a cab through Uber.

There is an opportunity here to change the default mindset of those visiting attractions and realising the benefits that pre-booking brings in terms of building the long term relationship with the visitor.  We already know that pre-booking has increased interaction with attraction websites beyond just booking and that engagement with attractions’ social media and e-newsletters has grown among pre-bookers.

So in the same way that society now accepts that the default is to pre-book attendance at sporting events, theatres and perhaps even restaurants, do attractions need to be more pro-active in their encouragement of pre-booking (such as through attractive discounting) rather than accept that we return to the uncertainty of spontaneous ‘walk-ups’?

2.  Visitors are more disappointed than we thought when the full visit experience isn’t available

Believe it or not, back in May 2020 we were asking questions such as ‘should we keep our toilets closed when we re-open to the public?’.  Our research quickly put this notion to bed, with half of the market saying that they wouldn’t visit at all if toilets were closed and large proportions saying they would choose not to visit if cafes, playgrounds, shops or interactive exhibits weren’t open.  Comments such as “I cannot stand this part-opening with no added facilities, I like to go out for the day and experience all that an attraction can offer” were commonplace, even during the pandemic.

Once re-opened, the most common visitor gripes were around parts of attractions which were closed or had their interactive features removed.

Beyond the pandemic, it’s therefore reminded us of the importance of not brushing under the carpet the interactives which are not working or the aspects of the visit which out of use for some reason.  Visitors will notice and judge their experience on this.  It also reminds us to try to make sure that visitors are guided to have the full experience through effective wayfinding.

3.  Visitors perhaps like to be led more than we have assumed in the past

There was much discussion around the necessity of one-way visitor routes as attractions re-opened in 2020. The assumption was that they were a necessary evil and that visitors didn’t want the ‘sausage-factory’ approach which disempowers visitors.  In reality, the evidence was that visitors were more likely to respond positively to one-way routes, taking the view that ‘you are the experts, so you tell us what to do’. 

One-way routes ensured that visitors engaged in the full experience and allowed attractions to convey their stories more effectively in a systematic manner.  As a result, many attractions also saw longer dwell times and a higher propensity for secondary spend:  “I thought the routes were brilliant and we actually saw more this way.  Normally we’d miss stuff.  I’m so glad we came!”

Of course, we need to incorporate some route flexibility.  Not everyone wants to be directed and some visitors decide or need to change their mind half way around.  Perhaps pre-defined route exit points or choices of longer, shorter or themed routes.

4. We are now more aware that a visit is a communal, not just an individual experience

This period has served as a reminder that our visit experience is dependent upon who and how many other visitors are around us and the atmosphere created.  It’s not solely about how the visitor, as an individual, interacts with an attraction.

The reasons why visitors felt that their visit was better or worse than pre-pandemic were often focussed upon the presence or otherwise of other visitors.  They either had a better, more personal experience with fewer visitors or felt that the attraction lacked its usual atmosphere.  Either way, the visit experience was influenced by fellow visitors.

Going forward, this has perhaps reminded us that understanding the optimum visitor volume to create the best atmosphere is vital to the individual visit experience.  To illustrate this, even as visit confidence grew during 2021, numbers of visitors feeling uncomfortable that attractions were overcrowded did not fall – it’s far more than just a Covid phenomenon and a measure that we need to pay greater attention to in the future.

5. The welcome from staff is critical in setting the tone for the visit

Finally, what article about the visit experience would be complete without mention of the incredible job that visitor-facing staff have performed over the past 18 months.  In particular, how vital the visitor welcome has been during a period in which many visitors have been returning to attractions for the first time, anxious about the experience that awaits.

Our research shows just how important that welcome is to the overall visit experience, with an overall visit enjoyment rating of 8.98 out of 10 among those scoring staff welcome as 9 or 10 compared with an overall visit enjoyment rating of just 5.96 out of 10 among those scoring staff welcome as 1-6.

Post-pandemic, many visitors will still arrive anxious, but just about different things.  Do I belong here?  Will I enjoy it?  How will I find my way around?  The welcome from staff will remain as important as during the pandemic.

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